State Advocacy Update: Fighting for Universal School Meals in Massachusetts

Lauren Banister
January 1, 2022

When children are hungry, they can’t learn. Yet, many families are cut off from accessing a critical source of nutrition for their children — school meals. This Tuesday, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Education is considering a bill that would permanently establish free school breakfast and lunch for all students.

MAZON has long advocated to reduce barriers to accessing food in schools. In 2012, we launched the first successful campaign to expose the fact that students were shamed and stigmatized if they were unable to pay for their lunch. Unfortunately, children — who understandably fear being labeled the “poor kid” by peers — and families are often hesitant to face the negative stereotypes and assumptions that accompany accessing vital nutrition assistance programs like the National School Lunch Program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Since MAZON’s first “lunch shaming” campaign nearly 10 years ago, over 15 states have either passed or proposed similar legislation nationwide, and several bills have been introduced at the federal level as well.

Building on prior legislation, Massachusetts’ new bill, S.314/H.714, An Act relative to universal school meals, goes a step further by ensuring no student is excluded from school meals and reducing the stigma attached to free and reduced-price lunch programs. Universal school meals would ensure that every kid who wants or needs breakfast and lunch during the school day can get it at no cost. Massachusetts is leading the nation in considering this proposal; only California and Maine have passed similar legislation.

MAZON collected testimony from synagogue partners in Massachusetts in support of this bill, and we are proud to share the voices of parents, teachers, students, faith leaders, and community members who are determined to ensure that every family has the resources they need to put food on the table:

“Growing up I have almost always received free or reduced-price lunch. There were times in elementary school where I would not have enough money to buy lunch and had to receive a paper bag lunch instead. It was so embarrassing; everyone knew what the bag lunch meant. Kids shouldn’t have to worry about affording lunch, especially when attending public school. It is the school’s responsibility that all of their students are safe and taken care of. Students should not have to receive a bad lunch of nonperishables, a lunch much less nutritious than the hot meal option, just because they are lower-class.” – Anonymous, Orange, MA

Kids with nothing in the fridge at home are joined by kids like mine whose parents simply appreciate not having to take 10 minutes to pack lunch, and nobody in the cafeteria can tell the difference between them. That protects every child’s dignity and encourages every child to come and get the food they need. Having to prove that one “qualifies” for free food, as for any other free or subsidized essential service, is time-consuming, can include significant language barriers for the families who need it most, and risks families or students feeling deterred by private or public shame. If we understand that food is essential, why should our state’s schoolchildren and their parents have to prove a lack of income in order for kids to eat?” – Cantor Vera Broekhuysen, Temple Emanuel-el, Haverhill, MA

“I am currently in my fourteenth year of teaching at a public high school in Massachusetts. Over the years in this role, I have seen the impact hunger and food insecurity can have on my students. Children who have not been fed, do not have access to adequate nutrition, or are worrying about where their next meal will come from are not children who are ready to learn. Children in this situation will often act out or shut down. Neither of these outcomes is desirable, and they are entirely preventable” – Lisa Herzl, North Andover, MA

“Over the 35 years I have lived in Massachusetts, it has consistently been a leader on social issues that improve the lives of all residents. This is a major reason I stay in MA and one that is often the envy of people who live in other parts of the country. By passing S.314 /H.714, Massachusetts will once again show the world that it is putting our children first and doing what is necessary to treat all residents with dignity and care.” – Cynthia Lynch, Bedford, MA

MAZON proudly submitted these comments and more alongside the testimony of our Board Member and Massachusetts resident, Marilyn Levenson Komessar to the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Education.

For more information about this effort, or how to lead similar efforts in your community, please contact Lauren Banister, MAZON’s organizer.